The Three Nativity Stories

Have you realised that there are actually three Nativity Stories?

The first is in Matthew’s Gospel, which includes a guiding star in the sky; an arrival of “wise men” from the east; King Herod’s slaughter of babies and toddlers; the escape of the ‘holy family’ to Egypt; their eventual attempted return to their “house” in Bethlehem; but diversion up north to Galilee, where they find a suitable home in the village of Nazareth. This long story takes place over an extended, unspecified period of time, but several months at least.

The second is in Luke’s Gospel, which says nothing at all about stars; “wise men”; a “house” in Bethlehem; Herod and his ‘slaughter of the innocents’; an extended stay in Egypt; and an unexpected diversion to Nazareth. Instead we have an enforced journey by a husband and pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem; a birth in a last minute, opportune outhouse, barn or stable; a choir of angels directing shepherds to that unlikely place; after 8 days, Jesus’ circumcision; after 40 days his ‘presentation’ in the Temple; and then the family’s return to Nazareth. Matthew had said nothing at all about any of this and, compared with the extended length of his story, Luke’s lasts only for around 6 weeks. They contradict each other.

The third ‘nativity story’ is the one repeated, every Christmas time, in innumerable primary schools across the country. In this story, Matthew’s Herod and his ‘slaughter of the innocents’, mercifully, don’t appear, nor does the escape to Egypt. His ‘wise men’, three in number, and their ‘Christmas presents’ to the baby Jesus are added on after Luke’s shepherds, as if they’d arrived a few minutes later, and this brings our third, conglomerated, story to a suitably simple and satisfying conclusion.  

I do hope you won’t take the view that I’m making a mockery of the Gospel stories, or of the children’s Nativity Plays, and that I’m implying that the stories should be dismissed from serious consideration, and the plays scrapped and relegated to past history. Far from it! That would risk throwing out the baby along with the bath water. The plays remind us that it is stories that we’re dealing with, irrespective of whether or not they might have any basis in fact, but tales which can easily be numbered among the most delightful, perennially popular, and inspiring stories ever produced.

Whoever Matthew and Luke were (and they were most probably men) they were very clearly skilled literary craftsmen, well equipped with suitably colourful, dramatic and poetic imaginations. Since they sought to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the promised Messiah, they fine-combed their Jewish scriptures for any verses that might not only be interpreted as ‘prophecies’ of his coming, but also suggest details that could be incorporated in the structure and contents of their stories. Matthew cites 5 such ‘prophecies’ in his version of the tale and, next time round, we’ll take a look at what he has to say, and why.

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